Teaching Q&A

How One High School Teacher Builds Vocabulary, and Rapport, With Her Students

By Elizabeth Heubeck — December 01, 2022 4 min read
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It’s the time of the year when “best of’s” and “favorites” begin to make headlines, crowd inboxes, and dominate playlists.

Even popular vocabulary words are getting their due.
Merriam-Webster just announced “gaslighting” as its 2022 Word of the Year. Even when the word is loaded with negativity, deeming vocabulary words media-worthy, in general, is good news for teachers looking to connect with their students and expand their vocabulary.

High school English teacher Beth Knapp talked with Education Week about how she routinely seizes on opportunities in the popular culture to build rapport with her students while also growing their vocabulary—and hers. Knapp teaches at Gilman School, an independent boys’ school in Baltimore, Md.

The following interview was edited for clarity and length.

How are popular terms like ‘gaslighting’ relevant to teachers and the teaching profession in the year 2022?

I think that being aware of terms and phenomena such as gaslighting is important to teaching, especially when teaching adolescents. Many of the books I’m asking them to read are old, and using updated language/terminology is a way to make older texts universal. In order to encourage my students to relate to people across time and generations, I need to be open to new words and ideas to describe current and past experiences.

Did most of your students know what gaslighting means before it was named the 2022 Word of the Year?

Yes, they have known the meaning of it, but when we use terms like this in class or in other discussions, I generally make sure to pause to define them for the group.

Have you used the word with your students?

I have used the word with my students, but mainly when they’ve brought it up. I think that the most recent time when gaslighting was used in my classroom was when a male student brought up his belief that masculinity was being “devalued” in our culture and that it is his responsibility to “protect women.” (Gilman, a boys’ school, opens some of its classes to high school students in its adjacent “sister schools” for girls, Bryn Mawr and Roland Park Country School.) The female students in the room pushed back on his assertions. I’ve also had students use gaslighting to describe ways that characters in novels interact. We can think about Macbeth in this context when exploring Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s relationship. Both characters manipulate and destabilize the other at different points in the play.

Do you ever make an effort to incorporate words in lessons that are popular primarily among young people?

Yes! I make an attempt to incorporate current language in my classroom, and I often ask students to tell me what words/terms mean when I’m unfamiliar with them. It’s one of the joys of being an older teacher: I no longer worry about them thinking I’m uncool!

What are some words your students use that were previously unfamiliar to you?

‘Sigma male’ is a new term that my 10th graders recently taught me. [It’s defined as a loner or one who is socially disinterested.] I’m still trying to figure out how to use it. Urban Dictionary is my go-to for stuff like this. I’m having a lot of conversations with my students about masculinity this year ... not more than normal—just using some different terminology and frameworks.

Have you ever attempted to use popular “teenage” vocabulary and been corrected by your students?

Yes. Recently I used ‘clutch’ incorrectly, according to some of my students. I asked a student if the pizza he was eating was clutch. They all laughed and insisted that I couldn’t describe pizza as clutch. I think they use it more as an exclamation and like this. So, we talked about what it really meant and how I could better use it.

Do you have a go-to source or sources you use to help build your students’ vocabulary?

My 10th graders play an anagram (a word or phrase formed by rearranging the letters of a different word or phrase) game at the beginning of class every day that we use to discuss words. Also, we have a subscription to InferCabulary. It has word games and word banks from many of the novels that we study.

What is your sense of teenage students’ vocabulary today compared to when you started teaching almost two decades ago?

Some students really strive to incorporate new vocabulary into their speech or writing, but many do not. I emphasize vocabulary memorization less than I used to, and my students now don’t incorporate new vocab words as much as they used to. But, my students now are much more aware of other things, particularly relating to sports and popular culture (via TikTok, Twitch, etc.).

Why have you de-emphasized vocabulary memorization?

I’ve de-emphasized memorization, in general, in favor of close reading and analysis. Since standardized tests also rely less on sheer vocab memorization and more on examining words in context; I do the same in my classroom. There is probably a correlation between less memorization and them using fewer vocab words, but I’d prefer that they can figure out a word using context clues as opposed to sheer memorization.

What do you think has the greatest impact on your students’ breadth of vocabulary? Reading books? Social media?

Social media, for sure—especially for slang or new terminology.

What is/are your students’ biggest social media go-to’s right now?

I think TikTok is the biggest one. I also think they use Twitch and other gaming platforms in a really social way. YouTube is also a go-to.


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